Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Artist Wong Shares With Us

Last year, Oakland resident Flo Oy Wong came with author John Jung, and spoke about her life growing up in a restaurant. On Sunday, she returned to share her poetry and art. She showed us some of her installation artwork, which makes use of a unique medium: silk screening on rice sacks. 
1997 Solo Exhibition "Rice Grains" at University of Kansas

2004 Exhibit in Koret Gallery, SF Library

She also shared some of her poetry.  “Home,”which was first published in the 2nd zine of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, is inspired by her mother who worked 17-hour days in a restaurant:

Home is Settled With Heart
I have traveled this road so long
Perhaps its flavor perfumes my dreams.
Often now when I look upon it
I taste joy and sorrow
Ancestors sprinkled upon me
A bit of rice here
A bit of rice there.
They, worn and tired,
From labor in wet fields
Whisper that home is settled with heart.
I go on, carrying their sweat and toil,
To embrace offspring whose journey
Glows warm through a curtained window
For which their lives are spent.
(July 2015)

"See That Tree?" was published in the inaugural issue of the online journal The Literary Nest.

"See that tree, Say So?
It is dying. So must I."
Your words float towards me in your small apartment
The freeway noise, an uninvited companion,
Rumbles into the living room
Where you and I sit
Our hearts linked, hands not touching
Your slippers sliding to the floor.
I smile to hide my unease
I look at you, kind eyes framed by wrinkles
Not many but they are there.
Your hair pulled back in a bun
Worn that way for many years
Except for the time you had a perm
Curls making you uncomfortable
I didn't know you then
But I know you now.
Our knowing shimmering like light green opals
Of your ring mounted in soft gold
Worn when you wiped your son's face
On a sultry summer's eve
That iridescence I feel now
As I fumble on a thin layer of dreams.
(Jan 25, 2015)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

English-speaking Monks and their Disappearing Lifestyle

USCPFA Member John Marienthal has had the good fortune to travel to all 23 of China's provinces. In 1995, while living in Xinjiang for a year, he managed to arrange a trip to neighboring Tibet. (see blog posts one and post two.) One aspect of Tibet--which dragged down every visitor--was the altitude difference. It is the highest place on earth, starting in Lhasa at about 12,000ft. 
"The most recognized building in Tibet—the Potola Palace-- was built in the 13th century as a fortress. It sits high on a ridge. Fortunately, when we visited, our bus took us around back (and we were able to avoid the endless staircase). 
Potola Palace
"What most impressed me—aside from the beauty of the palace and a dance performance that was being staged for a different tourist group, was spotting my first solar cooker. Apparently, Lhasa has most direct sunshine in the world. The monks had welded a metal camera-like tripod that held a teakettle. At the bottom of the kettle was the focal point of a large parabolic solar reflector. I asked how long it took to boil tea. He said about fifteen minutes. (Yes, of course. Because of the altitude.)
"We had a new guide who was not very well-versed in the history of the palace. His grasp of English was also very basic. Still, he did his best, matching up each room with a description in his guidebook, and then translating that to us. At one point we passed a group of monks in meditation. I lingered to let the group go ahead, and one of the monks turned to me and said in perfect English, 'I’m sorry. Your guide is mistaken. He has confused this shrine with another room.' I was delighted to find this fluent English speaker—although I woudn’t have guessed him to know the language in a thousand years. In fact, so many times, we would be talking, assuming the people around us couldn’t follow our conversation only to realize that they did. Moral of the story: don’t gripe and moan--especially in elevators. You never know who understands you.
"We visited the living quarters of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. The Dalai lives in India. The Panchen Lama has visiting quarters in the Potola Palace, but he usually lives in Beijing. As we left the Potola Palace by climbing down the endless front steps, I felt tired and overwhelmed. Still, we pushed onward to Ganden Monastery, which is built on a high ridge that is over 12,200 feet high. 
Ganden Monastery
There is no fresh water on the ridge. Each morning the young novitiates carry water buckets down the ridge, then carry fresh water back 800 feet to the top. This is said to teach humility and service to one’s fellow man. Instead of making the climb, we browbeat our guide into driving us up to the top of the ridge. It was a scarily narrow road with no shoulders to pull off onto, no barriers to prevent a tumble off the side. But it saved us walking up the endless ridge.
This monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution , as it was the largest monastery. It became a target of the young red guards who were out to liberate people from “old ideas,” smash the old, and bring forth the new. To destroy the monastery, they commandeered an artillery piece, dragged it atop a nearby ridge, and shelled the monastery for three days. At the time the monastery had over 6000 monks and novitiates. Two thirds of all the buildings were destroyed.
When we visited in ‘95 the monastery was being rebuilt. Many of the outlying buildings that had been destroyed were to become the new living quarters for the new monks. We asked how many new monks would there be, and a lively discussion ensued. The answer? Maybe 400. Maybe 1600. Prior to 1960—and the onslaught of the Cultural Revolution—families routinely offered their sons into the monastery system. (A third of young men followed this path.) But this was 1995. How many people would continue to do that?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pilgrimage to Jokkang Temple, Tibet

Member John Marienthal, who joined a tour in 1995, was one of the early travelers to Tibet. He had been living in neighboring XinJiang for a year, and he enjoyed comparing the two places, both of which have minority populations. (see post one
"Our first day of actual activity, we went downtown to the Drepung Monastery. 
Drepung Monastery
It was easier to walk, having adjusted a bit to the altitude. This was a good thing, as we spent several hours at the Drepung Monastery going up and down ladders to see rooms that were different shrines. 
Then we returned to our hotel for lunch. We avoided street vendors at first. As a result, our meals were mostly Chinese –rather than Tibetan—although our hotel did serve yak-butter tea (definitely an acquired taste.)
After lunch and a nap, we went downtown to the Jokkang temple. It is tradition to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa that ends at the Jokkang temple. The greater distance that you travel the more devout you are considered. In this case, traveling means you fall to your knees, push your body forward on the ground, pray-chant, then bring your knees up and push forward again. You slide, you jack-knife yourself forward, and you slide again. Once you reach Lhasa, you must then circle the Jokkang temple a certain number of times and then enter the temple and circle the temple. Our group did not go to all this effort, but instead rode a bus.
Surrounding the temple area were multiple small streets filled with street vendors. In the past, this area sold traditional Tibetan handicrafts-which people made to supplement their incomes in the winter. When we got there, the little stalls sold cheap goods that had come up by truck from Pakistan. I got the feeling that Lhasa was not overrun by Han Chinese coming to the city and selling things. Rather it was overrun by the Pakistani traders coming up to Lhasa by truck and selling cheap imported goods. Everywhere we saw young Tibetan and Han men listening to cheap transistor radios and walk-men with the latest Hong Kong pop, Taiwan and Japanese pop artists.."
(...to be continued. Next: English-Speaking Monks and their Disappearing Lifestyle)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Member John Marienthal's Early Travels to Mysterious Tibet

Historian (and USCPFA member) Tom Grunfeld said that prior to 1965 maybe only fifty westerners had actually traveled extensively within Tibet. I had always wanted to be one of those travelers. In 1995, when I was living in the bordering region of Xinjiang, I got my chance.
Xinjiang 1995
At the time there were only two flights a day to Lhasa, only 400 passengers a day. You had to be in a group, and if you ended up there alone, the hotel would call the Public Security Bureau. They would assign you to a group and you would be assessed a special group tour fee. So I booked the trip through a travel agency. They arranged our permit, a guide and our reservation at the Sunlight hotel.
Xinjiang --where I'd been living for a year--and Tibet are the two largest minority regions of China. Xinjiang has 16 minority groups and Tibet has 5 groups. Xinjiang is half the altitude of Tibet, and has more water, mineral, and cultural resources than Tibet. In 1995, there were Uighur, Kazah, and Han radio stations, and a Uighur-language TV channel and production station. Tibet only had a Han TV station, with minimal programming in the Tibetan language.
Tibetans are more dispersed than the people of Xinjiang, occupying Tibet, and the historical greater Tibet, which is the Qinghai basin and parts of the mountain regions of Sichuan and Yunnan. The Qinghai, basin is also the home of the Panchen Lama. He represents the historical division of Tibetan Buddhism into two sects. At one point in history these were two separate rival kingdoms.
I was excited to be going into the kingdoms. I had spoken with others who had traveled to Lhasa. They advised that on that first day, because of the altitude adjustment, I should head straight to my hotel. Nothing more. That seemed a tall order. Here we were landing in this mysterious land, and "do nothing" was not at the top of my list.
We climbed down the steps from the airplane to the ground, and I was thinking, “This is not so bad.” Then we walked over to an area to wait for a bus, and I was starting to feel the altitude a bit more. By the time we drove the 50 miles from the airport into the city, I felt winded. So when we reached our destination, it required supreme effort to climb the steps to our second-floor hotel rooms.
I was ready to do nothing.
However, my guide called me to come talk to him. He said that our permit was illegal, and that we would need to pay his company a group fee of 3000 rmb. He said that if we did not pay, he would turn us into the Public Security Bureau, they would confine us to the hotel, and they would put us on the first flight out on Tuesday. (It was Saturday.) While we all understood it as extortion, we also realized that it was only an extra 40 dollars a person. While we were thinking about this, we went down for dinner to the hotel dining room. We were the only ones in the hotel. Our waitresses were Tibetan, but our group spoke only a bit of Mandarin, and these women didn’t speak English. I ordered what I thought would be tomato soup. (Xi hong shir tang.) Unfortunately, “tang” can be either ‘soup’ or ‘sugar,’ depending on the understanding of the tones. We got sliced tomatoes with sugar.At that point we decided we needed our guide--extortion or no-- and agreed to pay him. (After that, he did all the food ordering for us.)
After all of that was settled, he sent us off to our rooms to sleep. Fat chance. My heart was thumping so loud, there was no way I could close my eyes. Later I discovered that, for emergencies, you could rent a rubber bag about the size of a pillow filled with compressed air. The air would last about five minutes but you would feel better for about an hour or so, enough time to fall asleep.
(...to be continued. Next: John Makes the Pilgrimage to Jokkang Temple.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Literary Evening

Although we were competing with the Oscars, we still had a good group of members more interested in hearing author Margaret Zhao and author/professor Bart Trescott and his wife Kitty.
Margaret is both a poet and author, and the evening began with her publicist Laura Navarro reading several of Margaret’s Haiku. Two of my favorites;

Enjoy Watching

My Shadow in Sunset

What a Slim Body

My Husband Works Hard to

Bring Home the Bacon

But I’m a Vegetarian

Margaret, the author of Really Enough, began by talking about happiness. She said that in Chinese culture, the ultimate happiness is children. Before Margaret was born, her parents had a very good and very happy life. Their first child was a little girl which they named Double Happiness. They were indeed pleased by this child, but really wanted a boy. In fact, her mother worried that she would have to make room for a second wife if she couldn’t produce a boy. Fortunately, the second child was a son. He was named Repeat Happiness. Then there was Little Ox –he was born in the stables. When the fourth child was born, China was falling into chaos. Margaret’s mother wanted all this "happiness" to end. So she named the fourth child—Complete Happiness. In 1949, the Communists took over, and Margaret’s family became the ‘enemy of the state.’ 
“They were lucky not to be shot,” said Margaret. 
They were sent to the countryside to live, even though they had no idea how to farm. Despite Margaret’s Mother’s message to the Gods that she was completely happy, she gave birth to a fifth child in 1952. Again, Margaret's Mother chose a name that she hoped would alert the Gods to her gratitude yet desire for this to stop. She named the baby , “Enough.” Four years later, Margaret was born. Thus she was given the name “Really Enough Complete Happiness.”
In the countryside, life was difficult. “Sometimes there was a bit of rice but no wood with which to make a fire to cook the rice. Sometimes there was wood but no rice. Sometimes there was neither.”
When Margaret was in 3rd grade, the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. It was this year that her ability to attend school was cut off. She got jobs cooking (although she didn’t really know how), working in factories, and even at one point in 1976 she got a job teaching 4th grade. She was fired from this last job—not because she only had a 3rd grade education herself—but because her boss discovered her “enemy” background.
At this point, Margaret fell into despair. She went to the levy, perhaps thinking to jump in and end her life. She was ashamed, desperate, feeling she was at a dead end. As she sat there, she saw the full moon rising. It was the most beautiful moon she’d ever seen. She looked at that moon and thought, “They took my job, but they cannot take the moon from me. I’m still alive and breathing. They cannot take the air from me.” Margaret was inspired to move on.
Three years later, when Mao died, Deng Xiao Ping opened the universities to everyone. Margaret was suddenly considered equal to her peers. Despite her lack of formal education, she wanted to take the test for university. Everyone laughed at her. (Only 6% of applicants would be accepted.) But she studied for 8 months night and day. She sat for the test. She earned a spot.
She said that today she wakes up each morning grateful. “I have fresh water. I turn the stove on and fire comes automatically. I have food. I have a roof over my head. I’m free.”
Bart Trescott, author of From Frenzy to Friendship, was commissioned by USCPFA to put together the history of the organization. He travelled across the country and met with early members, researched old FBI files on the group’s activities, and did extensive interviews. He said that while the group really started out as a bunch of radical Americans who played into the hands of a China interested in opening relations. (Zhou Enlai could say, “Look these Americans are just like us. They are following Mao, too.”) USCPFA has evolved. “IT’s not just a private social club,” said Bart. “It’s done a lot of good in the world.” Look for his book at the National Convention.